Laura McPhee-Browne is a social worker who writes short stories. She hails from Melbourne, Australia and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. Most of her published work can be found on her website: https://lauramcpheebrowne.squarespace.com.
This story first appeared in Issue Eleven of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and the payment of our contributors by purchasing a copy.
I get to work late, and everyone on the cash registers is talking about Forest Boy. I ask them who Forest Boy is, and Sam Lennox tells me that Forest Boy is all over the news and haven’t I heard anything? I tell Sam Lennox that no, I haven’t heard anything because my grandpa has been very sick and I haven’t had any time to watch the telly or read the newspapers. I put my hands in my pockets and cross my fingers to make sure that Grandpa Morris doesn’t get sick because I lied and said he was, and then I point out to Sam Lennox that he’s picked a pimple on his cheek too much and has blood on his face and he goes red and hurries off to the toilet.
I learn more about Forest Boy throughout the day. Marlena tells me about how he turned up in Berlin two days ago and told the authorities that he’d been living in the forest since he was twelve, and that he’s all alone and his dad died and he buried him out there, and the red-faced man she is serving chimes in with the fact that he heard that Forest Boy speaks funny, and that he can’t eat with a knife and fork, but only with his hands. Then the red-faced man walks to a table and sits down, picking up his fries and the pickle from his Whopper with his fat fingers and stuffing them in his mouth.
Forest Boy. It’s a catchy name, and during my shift at least three customers hear us talking about Forest Boy and come over to chat about it with us at the counter, still stuffing onion rings in their mouths or slurping Coke Zero out of giant cups. Usually work is so boring that I feel like my heart is actually going to stop beating, but talking about Forest Boy is interesting, and it gets to the end of my shift almost without me even noticing.
That night I think of telling Dad about Forest Boy but I don’t, because he’s asleep on the couch when I get home, snoring like beer cans and bears, and I’m actually quite happy to leave him like that and search the internet for all the stories people have written about Forest Boy. I stay up until 4 am because I can’t stop clicking back to the picture of him. His face looks like mine, if I was a boy with sort of blonde hair and a banana nose. He is smiling like he knows something that no one else does, and I really want to know what it is.
At work the next day no one brings up Forest Boy. I keep wanting to say something about him, like when I had a crush on Harry Stubbs and I would always bring him up with Dad whenever he mentioned anything even remotely connected with Harry, like the weather, or what was for breakfast, or who won the footy. When I ask Jules if she’s heard anything else about Forest Boy, she tells me that it was her brother’s birthday the day before so she had to spend the whole night looking after a bunch of ten-year-olds who wanted to touch her boobs while her mum got sentimental on vodka and creamy soda. I tell her I’m getting obsessed with Forest Boy, that I don’t know why but I can’t stop thinking about him. She stares at me for a long time until I laugh, and then she smiles a bit and walks over to the soft-serve machine, looking back at me the way you look at someone you think might be crazy. Then I go to the toilet even though there’s a huge lunch line and google Forest Boy on my iPhone but there’s shit reception so I can’t find out anything. After that I just serve and stare at the clock, willing it to get to the end of my shift so I can skate home and google the news.
It takes hours longer than the time says. When I finally get home, I start reading about Forest Boy’s mum, who died in a car crash when he was twelve, and how he has scars on his face because he was in the car. Dad cooks us sausages and peas and suggests we watch Neighbours but then he gets pissed off at me because I keep refreshing Yahoo on my phone for anything new about Forest Boy. After he falls asleep with his mouth open and the gurgling starts, I’m on the computer again. I wish I could find out everything, but I’m not in Berlin, I’m in Altona, and you can only find out so much from Altona.
It’s a big week at Hungry Jack’s—I do six shifts in seven days and spend the rest of my time thinking about Forest Boy. On Friday I’m squirting mustard on a cheeseburger when Sam Lennox comes in from his lunch break.
“Didya hear?” he asks me, and I notice that he’s put a Transformers band-aid over the pimple that was bleeding earlier in the week.
“No, what?” I say. “I don’t have time for stupid questions, this order’s gotta get done.” Sam grins and leans against the counter.
“What?” I ask again.
“Forest Boy’s a fake. He got caught out and he’s really just a normal kid from somewhere in the Netherlands who was bored of his life,” says Sam and he leans back and laughs like a deranged kookaburra. I feel a chill slide through my body.
“So what?” I reply. “So what? I don’t care. Get lost, Sam.” I turn and finish squirting the mustard then I pick up the cheeseburger lid and plop it right on top.
“Can you take this out to that lady with the purple hair?” I ask Keiko who’s out the front, and she nods and I hand her the wrapped-up burger and head around the side of the kitchen to where my bag is. I reach forward and grab onto the straps, I pull at them hard to stop me crying. It might not even be true; Sam’s a bloody liar, I remind myself. I’ll say I’m sick and head home to find out.
At home I search up and down the news sites and it’s true—the whole Forest Boy thing is a crock. I start to cry, which I know is weird but my head seems suddenly full of tears. The news stories all say the same thing—he’s really just a nineteen-year-old from the Netherlands who scammed the German authorities, and lots of people are really angry with him. I’m not angry but I am upset. I wanted it to be possible for someone to live in the forest for years with their dad, scrounging and foraging for food and sleeping in stick huts. But it didn’t happen and so I shut off the computer and sit in the dark lounge room and let the tears scurry down my cheeks.
When Dad gets home he seems very worried that I’m sitting in the dark and that my eyes are all red and my voice is soft and sad. He suggests we go to the local for a counter meal and I don’t really feel like it, but he seems really keen to cheer me up so I say yes and we walk down to Millers Inn where they do a good chicken parma. When we’ve finished eating and Dad suggests we share an apple crumble, I don’t mean to but I sigh really loud and he asks me what’s wrong. I tell him about Forest Boy, and how much I enjoyed finding out about him and his cool life and then how shitty I felt when I found out that he’d lied and was just a regular guy playing a trick on everyone.
“Well Nomes, that does make a lot of sense you know, that you felt so sad about it,” Dad says, and reaches over to hold my hands in his.
“What do you mean?” I ask him.
“Well your mum always told us she wanted to go and live in the bush, or the rainforest, and that she’d only be happy out there, didn’t she?”
So much comes swamping back to me then. The way Mum would talk about being free, and how you couldn’t be free in the city and she’d only be free if she could live in stick huts and forage for food in the real world—where there are only trees and animals for company. The way Mum and Dad would argue, quietly but seriously, about her ideas and the way she wouldn’t shut up about them, even though it was all in her head. And then she’d left, and we never heard from her again.
“You know just because this Forest Boy chap wasn’t really living on the land, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, ay?” Dad says, squeezing my fingers with his kind, rough ones.
I know he’s trying to help me feel better, and I want him to think it’s working, so I squeeze his hands right back and then we eat the apple crumble that sits in its puddle of Blue Ribbon ice-cream and head home, walking slow and gentle like we did when I was little and I’d always hold his hand. When we get back I feel like a deflated balloon, all floppy and full of spit and nothing, so I decide to have an early night. Dad looks worried but I tell him I’m okay.
That night I have one of those dreams that you can still remember in the morning. Mum is there, and it’s just me and her sitting in the lounge room like it used to be, back when she was living with us. When she turns to look out the window I can see there is a stick in her hair. She asks me how I am but I can’t reply because when I open my mouth she starts to cry. It doesn’t seem strange, but I know like you know in dreams that she’ll keep crying if I keep talking, so I just smile and nod my head in big bends so she’ll know that I love her and that I’m not angry; not now anyway.